Patristic tradition made a distinction between “theology” and other forms of discourse. Theology spoke of God: the being, interpersonal relationships and saving purpose of the Holy Trinity. Other matters fell outside the realm of genuine theology: anthropology, worship, mission, and so forth. Gradually the term “theology” came to embrace all aspects of human life and destiny in relation to God. Theologians now distinguished theology ad intra from theology ad extra, the former referring to the inner life of the Godhead and the latter to the divine “economy” or plan for the world’s salvation.
What we call “theology” today seldom corresponds to what true theology is meant to be. Every discipline from psychology to literary criticism makes a claim on the term. Would-be theologians speak, or used to, of a “Death of God” theology, which is an oxymoron. Many develop liberation or feminist or gay-lesbian “theologies” built upon a particular social or political agenda. While some of these may to some degree correspond to God’s purpose in the divine economy, they are not “theology” in the true sense. They are our words about God and the world, rather than God’s Word addressed to us “for the life of the world.”
Even within Orthodoxy the term “theology” is often misused, and the “theological disciplines” often fail to speak in a language that is both “about” God and “worthy” of God. Why does this matter? Because theology—derived from Scripture and patristic tradition, then elaborated anew in each generation within the Church—is more than language. It is, in its purest form, communion: a communion in perfect love between God and ourselves.
Some years ago an Orthodox bishop from an East European country participated in a discussion at the World Council of Churches on the “problem” of prayer. Most of those in attendance complained about how difficult and frustrating it is to pray in our day and age, how much social, psychological and other pressures militate against prayer. Finally, with an air of mild incomprehension, the elderly bishop stood up and spoke. Humbly and rather apologetically, he admitted that he could not understand why others found prayer so difficult. “It’s really quite simple,” he said. “In the morning, you get out of bed, make the sign of the cross, then begin: ‘O Heavenly King, the Comforter…’.”
Naïve as he may have seemed to the others in their grappling with the existential “problem of prayer,” this bishop understood the simplicity, the beauty and the strength of genuine prayer—prayer which, as the apostle declares, is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8). He, perhaps more than any of the others, was by that very fact a true “theologian,” one who had, in the quiet of his daily meditation, come to commune with God in all the joy of perfect love.